Facebook Twitter



Pssst. Guess who else has perks in Washington besides the "watch the bouncing check" Congress and the "take a limousine to the dentist" White House?

It's you.Yes, you.

The trouble is, most people don't know about their perks. And they aren't exactly major. But they could lead to some nifty gifts or some VIP treatment if you ever visit Washington. At least you'll get a little more return on your tax dollar.

Anyway, here's the loot:

- If you have a friend or relative who will turn 80 years old or older on their next birthday, or whose next wedding anniversary marks 50 years of marriage or more, you can request a card of congratulations to them from the president.

To request such a card, write four to six weeks in advance of the event to: White House Greetings Office, Washington, DC 20500. The White House will send the card out a week in advance.

The White House asks that you provide all pertinent information, including the birth or anniversary date, names and addresses. The White House sends out more than 750,000 such cards each year.

- You can easily obtain a flag that has flown atop the U.S. Capitol, along with a certificate of authenticity from the Capitol architect that mentions both who requested it (you) and the member of Congress who ordered it.

Congress flies hundreds of such flags a day (for at least a half minute or so each) at the request of constituents. It's a nice gift to mark a wedding, birthday, graduation, baptism, Eagle Scout award or any other event.

I admit I used to make fun of such flags - until we took one to my wife's family reunion. Her family always has an auction of white elephants to cover some of the costs. So we contributed a flag we had flown on what would have been the 110th birthday of the family's matriarch, who immigrated emigrated from Poland.

The bidding was fiercer than anything since Uncle Joe offered a like-new camp stove. They all wanted the flag that honored a poor immigrant ancestor by flying over the high and mighty.

To order a flag, call any member of Congress at 1 (202) 224-3121. Ask the switchboard operator for the office you want. You can even request a flag from the office of Vice President Dan Quayle, who is the president of the Senate.

You do have to buy the flag, and prices vary. In the Senate, the cheapest 3-by-5-feet nylon flag now costs $7.50. The largest 5-by-8 cotton flag costs $18.75.

Give the congressional office the pertinent information and send the money, and it will send the flag to the recipient for free using the member's "free-mail" franking privilege (another perk for you). Offices prefer requests far in advance, but some handle them up to the day before the event.

- You can obtain free tickets to VIP tours of the White House, FBI headquarters, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the money-printing Bureau of Engraving from your local House or Senate members.

The only trick is to call a minimum of about three months in advance because tickets go quickly. Each member only receives a few tickets for each week and receives many times more requests than tickets.

The tours are usually for early morning hours before other tourists can visit and are for smaller groups. If you miss a congressional tour, don't fret. You can still see those sites, but you might have to stand in long lines to do so.

- You can also receive special tours of the U.S. Capitol, but you may have to be a little extra persuasive.

Many congressional offices will assign a staffer to guide personal tours for constituents who request it in advance. Free continuous tours are also available from the Capitol guide service, and passes to the House and Senate chambers are available from any member's office.

For those who want to try for the Holy Grail of tours, they can ask their member of Congress to take them to the top of the Capitol rotunda. Only people accompanied by a member of Congress may make that trip by winding along stairs in the steel inner skeleton of the Capitol dome.

- Washington is also full of other perks for tourists. Those who have never visited the city are amazed to find most attractions are free.

The National Air and Space Museum is free. The National Gallery of Art is free. The Natural History Museum is free. The American History Museum is free. The National Zoo is free. You get the idea.

Of course, the perks aren't exactly free. Your taxes pay for them.

But if you choose to enjoy them, it may be the closest you ever come to feeling like a member of Congress.